Questions and answers to think about: Amy Howell

Of the new department heads taking over this fall, one of the most noticed will be Amy Howell in chemistry, a distinguished researcher who will also stand out as one of a rare breed  – a woman heading a chemistry department. Chemical & Engineering News each year reports on how many women chemists are faculty members in the top 50 most research active chemistry departments in the U.S. While the number is slowly rising – up about 1% each year for the past six years –  the total of women chemistry faculty still hovers around 17 percent. Another survey, by Catalyst, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing opportunities for women, found that women are department heads of only 4 percent of the top 50 chemistry departments.  Yet nearly a third of all doctorates in chemistry at the top schools were awarded to women between 1993 and 2002.

Howell served as associate head of chemistry for three years. A graduate of Wheaton College (B. Sc. chemistry, highest honors), she worked as a high school teacher at a Navajo Methodist Mission School in New Mexico and at the College of West Africa in Monrovia, Liberia before attending the University of Kentucky, where she earned her PhD in organic chemistry. She was a postdoctoral research fellow at Northwestern University and Nottingham University, and she came to UConn in 1994 as an assistant professor. In 2007, she was named UConn Student Government Educator of the Year.


Why did you become a chemist?

I became a chemist because chemistry fascinated me. My father was a biology professor who was passionate about his subject area. In spite of a demanding teaching load at a small Christian liberal arts college, he did research and wrote grants. When schedules permitted, he would take his children (I was the youngest of four) on field trips with his classes, and we would be somewhere between amused and embarrassed as he would walk right into the middle of streams, cajoling the reluctant students to follow his example. I am sure his lifelong curiosity influenced me in ways that I did not realize. Rather than biology, though, it was chemistry that captured my interest in high school. The teacher was sarcastic and jaded, but his explanations were clear. I was at least somewhat hooked. I started college not sure what I wanted to major in (chemistry or English?). Again, it was the logic of chemistry that drew me. My freshman chemistry professor was a Chinese physical chemist with a strong accent. This was nothing compared to her passion for chemistry and for recruiting people she thought should become chemistry majors. It was ultimately organic chemistry that sealed my love for chemistry.


Why is chemistry a career that young women should consider?

I think many younger women already see chemistry as a strong career possibility. At UCONN approximately 50% of our chemistry majors are female, as are approximately 33% of our graduate students. Unfortunately, there is a drop off in percentages when the professoriate is considered. Perhaps we, as faculty, have not done a good enough job of selling the advantages of this career pathway. Fear of failure may be a factor, but recent studies show that women are as successful as men in attaining tenure in the STEM disciplines. Incompatibility with raising a family is often cited, but there are few professions that have the flexibility that the tenure track stream does. I do not want to underplay the challenges, but there are so many creative ways that women have successfully integrated a rewarding career with having a family. I believe that the vast majority of faculty will attest to the high job satisfaction in academia. The opportunity to combine “doing” science, sharing science, travel, mentoring and teaching is, in my opinion, unparalleled.


What advice do you give women undergraduate and graduate students who are thinking about a career in chemistry? What would help them achieve leadership positions in the field?

The advice I give female students is much the same as what I tell any student. I encourage all of them to embrace every learning opportunity that they can. I stress striving for excellence so they can succeed in a competitive field, no matter what specific direction they choose. I have more extensive interactions with graduate students. Among them, my general observation is that female students can be less confident. This is not universal, and it is not exclusively a female issue. However, I think the percentage of women who underestimate their abilities is higher. Confidence is best increased by enhancing skills and opportunities for growth and success.


Several groups have speculated that a “critical mass” of about 20 percent women faculty is needed to create an environment in which women don’t feel marginalized. How does that help?

When there are lower percentages of women or underrepresented minorities, these individuals can feel that they have to be standard bearers. This is an unfair burden. Also, such individuals can be pressed into greater service loads because an institution sees the importance of broad representation on committees. Such demands on time can detract from scholarly activities. In addition, a small number of women (or underrepresented minorities) cannot truly be effective role models. An individual might be a good role model for certain people. However, the communities we serve are diverse, and pathways to success are numerous. It is much better when there are many role models to follow.


You were instrumental in founding the WIMSE group at UConn – Women in Math, Science, and Engineering. How does it support women in technical and scientific fields here and what are its goals?

WIMSE supports women in the STEM disciplines by being a voice for their concerns and a resource for information. Sometimes larger groups garner more attention than individuals. Also, the group provides an opportunity for women to meet colleagues outside their department. It can be easy to feel isolated early in an academic career when so much attention is focused on being successful.

Some current issues the WIMSE group has brought up recently with Deans in the STEM disciplines include: 1) standardization of tenure/promotion procedures related to tenure clock delays; 2) the impact of service loads on scholarship; 3) development of university procedures to effectively deal with hiring dual career couples and 4) salary equity.


What do you hope to accomplish as department head?

Although the number of tenure track faculty in our department over the last ten years has not increased significantly, the department has improved on virtually every metric of success, including level of external grant funding, number of scholarly publications, number of patents, number of graduate students, etc. I would like to engender an atmosphere that makes continued growth possible. The hires we make over the next five years will be critical. In addition, because of the rapid developments in science and the changing nature of the job market, one goal is for the department to evaluate both our undergraduate and graduate programs to make sure that we continue to graduate students who are well trained and competitive.

Why do incoming college students choose STEM disciplines as their majors? A new survey by Microsoft and Harris Interactive explores why women and men make that choice.


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